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Why Uri Blau's Indictment Should Worry Every Journalist in Israel

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A few years ago I visited the Stasi Museum in Berlin. The tour through the once highly secretive and secure building of East Germany's Ministry for State Security was fascinating, even if a little hilarious.

Not only did the crude and sometimes obvious gadgets used for spying on citizens and officials make me wonder how the people of that former country put up with its leaders for so long, but it also shed light on the clearly paranoid and extreme techniques some regimes use to stay in power.

According to our museum tour guide, Stasi officers knew no limits and had no shame when it came to protecting the party and the state. They used ruthless and intimidating methods to keep the people in line and frequently manipulated the press or suppressed freedom of information, all in the name of state security.

That visit came to mind this week when news broke in Israel on Wednesday that friend and colleague Haaretz journalist Uri Blau is to be indicted by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein for unauthorized possession of classified materials. Even though the charges fall short of fully blown espionage, in announcing his decision Weinstein admitted that the indictment comes under an "aggravated espionage" clause in the law.

Espionage, classified documents, targeted killings (which was the subject matter that Blau revealed in the incriminating article he published back in November 2008) and possible jail time that a young Israeli journalist now faces, is suddenly more than just an eerie reminder of what I had learned about East Germany's repressive regime.

Until Wednesday, I always believed that Israeli journalists -- when it comes to doing our jobs like we should -- had it pretty easy compared colleagues in countries across Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia and elsewhere in the Middle East. Even though access to information in this country is sometimes censored under the "state security" clause, as far as government-promoted aggression and threatening behavior towards the media goes, we have never really faced a problem.

In light of Blau's indictment, it is now possible that this comfortable reality could change.

In a statement released Wednesday by the International Press Institute (IPI), acting Deputy Director Anthony Mills condemned Israel's plans to indict Blau, saying that it "would set a highly unfortunate precedent for press freedom and democracy is Israel."

"Journalists should have the right to use leaked documents as sources for their stories when these stories serve the public interest," said Mills. "We are highly concerned about the ramifications of this decision on the right of the Israeli public to be informed about the actions of state institutions."

Of course, the IPI is right to be worried but perhaps Mill's assessment points to a deeper, more entrenched, problem facing the Israeli media and its relationship to the state.

While Blau is not the first journalist in the country to be leaked classified military information or to get a scoop of such massive proportions, the difference with his story is that the documents he received were not "officially" leaked.

"Official leak" might sound like an oxymoron, but the truth of the matter is that many leaks in Israel are spoon fed by the government or generically engineered by some other official source. Most of the time these "leaks" feature information about how our enemies want to kill us and how we managed to stop them.

Blau's case is different. He received unofficially leaked documents that contained information he felt was important to make public. He decided that people had to know some of the information in the documents so they could make an informed decision about the place they are living in. This is the essence of journalism.

In this case, which is often referred to as the Anat Kamm Affair after the young woman who leaked the documents to Blau and who is now sitting in jail, Blau's goal was to reveal the truth and he made a professional decision that I hope others in my profession would also have taken if they were given the chance.

It might be true that Blau's story made the country look bad. It might also be possible that some of the documents in his possession jeopardized state security but if the role of a journalist is to reveal the truth, inform the public and hold those in authority accountable then Uri Blau was just doing his job.

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